The past can be a refuge, a safe place where memory says things were better than they really were. The past can also be a kind of captivity, where the dreams that died or misfired--all of our might-have-beens--are haunting and inescapable.
Movies have always used the past as a rich resource, often for sunny escapism ("Meet Me in St. Louis"). But the past has also been a place to be re-examined, seen anew, plumbed for old angers and new insights from the perspective of later time.
There are, admittedly, narrative holes in "The Two Jakes" through which you could drive an oil truck. But, like the indecipherable dialogue in some of Robert Altman's early films, they may be briefly offputting but in the long run don't matter. The story moves on; the pieces fall into place; the thrust is clear enough.
What is somewhat unexpected about "The Two Jakes" is that it is, beyond its private-eye trimmings, a triple-barreled love story. One Jake is in love with a memory, the other Jake is rather catastrophically in love with his own wife. The author, Robert Towne, is in love with the Los Angeles in which he grew up (in San Pedro) and which he has watched thicken and darken and be ravished in the name of quick wealth.
The new film presumes at least some familiarity with "Chinatown" and the experience of "The Two Jakes" is unquestionably enriched if you remember the first fairly well. Yet Jack Gittes' deep emotional ties to the memory of Evelyn Mulwray, the Faye Dunaway character in "Chinatown," are amply demonstrated in this sequel, set a decade later, made nearly two decades later.
Towne's script, with whatever emendations Jack Nicholson as director and star made during shooting and editing, piles up what seem clear implications that Gittes' present life is a set of consolation prizes: success, the fancy Art Deco office, the golf, the two-toned shoes, the fiancee (whose existence he keeps forgetting about). His love is with and for the woman who died in his presence, and he would express it by protecting her daughter, if he knew where to find her.
Harvey Keitel, in a film in which most values are shaded and not much is clear-cut, is in his own way an acting-out of a love that shapes all if it doesn't quite conquer all. The villain as victim is at least as old as Frankenstein's monster, but Keitel's villain-victim is no monster, only another Jake hung up on love.
The shadow of Raymond Chandler falls heavily on "The Two Jakes." It still seems his Los Angeles, not less than Towne's. But the love theme is a motif from Chandler as well. He knew all about doomed love, and the obsession of Moose Malloy for the lost and found and faithless Velma in "Farewell My Lovely" remains in mind well after the rest of the plot has slipped away.
The love for the found and lost Los Angeles is Towne's own passion, and the dusty, bulldozed building pads Nicholson and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond discovered, and the numbly nodding oil pumps beneath the gallows drill rigs, the power pylons snaking across the virgin hills, become an unsaid litany of all we've surrendered to progress.
There is much that is affecting and much that is impressive about "The Two Jakes." Nicholson, after his high-camp outings in "Batman" and "The Witches of Eastwick," let himself grow heavy and be photographed to emphasize that aging, jowly heaviness. (Greater love hath no actor than to lay down his good looks for a part.) The wisecracking private eye has become the world-weary witness-protagonist. It is a disciplined performance, the feelings clear and strong but the histrionics held in check.
The sadness is Towne had reportedly planned a trilogy, taking Los Angeles another leap toward its present, but after the bitter turmoil surrounding the delayed making of "The Two Jakes" he has declined to go on. It seems a pity because, for all its occasional narrative uncertainties, the new film is alive with character, event and comment, a demanding but rewarding experience.
One day it will be fascinating to see "The Two Jakes" and "Chinatown" on a double bill, or in the comfort of our own living rooms. They display the power of the past, and so does "Cinema Paradiso."
The uses of the past are seldom better displayed, in fact, than in "Cinema Paradiso," which may be the most beloved film of recent years and which threatens to run forever. If Peter Bogdanovich and Larry McMurtry's "The Last Picture Show" confirmed how the movie house fitted into the life of a small community, "Cinema Paradiso" reminds us all how the movies have fitted into the life of the imagination.
The movies are--still--to our spirits like water to a garden. Films may be endangered by television, as they have been; but they have not and can not be replaced by television in their ability to lift us out of ourselves and transport us to other times, past, present and future. Television has its own strengths, charms and virtues. But the cinema is still the dream-house.
"Cinema Paradiso" is Guiseppe Tornatore's thank-you note to the dream-house. We may or may not have known a projectionist quite like Philippe Noiret (although if you lived in a small town you surely knew who the projectionist was) and Sicily is another place, far away. But the deep and delicious reward of "Cinema Paradiso" is not how different its details are, but how close to our own spirit and memory it all seems.